The Witty Enlightenment: Exploring Voltaire’s Philosophical Legacy

A Beacon of Enlightenment

Philosophibytes level 2François-Marie Arouet, known by his pen name Voltaire, and for his novel, Candide, was not just a philosopher; he was a cultural powerhouse. In his lifetime spanning from 1694 to 1778, Voltaire became synonymous with the Enlightenment, a period that championed reason, science, and, dare I say, a cheeky wit in the face of traditional dogmas. This French luminary was a master of satire, a brave critic of tyranny and injustice, and an advocate for freedom of speech, religious tolerance, and reason. His ideas were so potent they were both celebrated and feared, adorning the salons of Paris and the blacklist of the Catholic Church alike.

Voltaire’s Philosophical Panache

Voltaire’s philosophy was as vast as it was influential. Central to his thought were three main pillars: advocacy for freedom of expression, criticism of religious dogmatism and fanaticism, and a belief in the supremacy of reason and empirical evidence. His most famous work, “Candide,” remains a brilliant example of how satire can be used to examine and challenge societal norms.

Philosophies and Ideologies: The Spark of Satirical Wisdom

Voltaire à L'âge De 24 AnsVoltaire’s contribution to philosophy, spanning over 650 words of this section, deserves a detailed exploration. His sharp wit wasn’t just for entertainment; it was a scalpel to dissect the follies of his time. Let’s delve into his key philosophical concepts:

  1. Freedom of Expression: Voltaire famously said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This rallying cry for freedom of speech was ground-breaking. Voltaire believed that open discourse was essential for societal progress and the fight against tyranny.
  2. Religious Critique: Voltaire was a fierce critic of religious dogmatism and fanaticism. He argued that organized religion often led to social division and conflict, advocating instead for a form of deism that emphasized morality derived from reason and natural law.
  3. Rationalism and Empiricism: Voltaire championed the use of reason and empirical evidence. He argued that knowledge should be grounded in what can be observed and proven, rather than on tradition or unchallenged authority. This approach was pivotal in promoting scientific thought during the Enlightenment.
Legacies and Modern Context

Voltaire’s ideas have reverberated through centuries, influencing everything from political revolutions to modern debates on free speech and secularism. His advocacy for civil liberties laid the groundwork for democratic principles, and his critiques of religious and political oppression remain relevant. Recent studies in political and social sciences often reference Voltaire’s arguments for tolerance and rational debate.

Reading List
  1. “Candide” by Voltaire
  2. “Letters on the English” by Voltaire
  3. “Philosophical Dictionary” by Voltaire
  4. “Treatise on Tolerance” by Voltaire
  5. “Voltaire in Love” by Nancy Mitford
Online resources
  1. Voltaire – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  2. Voltaire – Wikipedia
Steff asks Sophi:

Voltaire had a fascinating life. Please tell us about it.

Very true, Voltaire, lived his life true to the words of his writing! Born François-Marie Arouet in 1694, Voltaire was a French writer, philosopher, and outspoken advocate of civil liberties. His life reads like a grand adventure, filled with controversy, intellectual exploration, and quite a bit of scandal.

Voltaire was born into a middle-class Parisian family. He received a classical education at the Jesuit Collège Louis-le-Grand, where he developed a love for literature and theatre, but also a disdain for dogmatism and religious orthodoxy.

His sharp tongue and pen led to his first imprisonment in the Bastille in 1717 for writing satirical verses about the French government. This pattern of criticism, imprisonment, and exile would be a recurring theme in his life. After his release, he adopted the name “Voltaire,” possibly an anagram of “Arouet L[e] J[eune],” signalling his rebirth as a writer.

Voltaire shot to fame with writings spanning multiple genres—plays, poetry, essays, historical and scientific works. His tragedy ‘Oedipe’ achieved great success in 1718, and he became known as a leading poet and playwright.

So what about his stint in England from 1726 to 1729? I believe he got banged up in the Bastille again before being exiled across the Channel.

This period profoundly influenced his thinking. He was impressed by England’s constitutional monarchy, its support for the sciences and arts, and the relative freedom of speech. His book ‘Letters Concerning the English Nation’ (1733), published in English as ‘Letters on England,’ extolled these virtues but also led to controversy back in France.

So he continued to antagonise his homeland!?

Absolutely. By then, his reinforced philosophical beliefs emphasized reason, empirical science, and religious tolerance. His most famous philosophical work, “Candide, or Optimism” (1759), is a satirical novella that criticized the prevailing optimistic philosophy of the time, particularly that of Leibniz, who asserted that “we live in the best of all possible worlds.” Through the misadventures of its protagonist, Candide, Voltaire questions this optimism, exposing the harsh realities of the world.

Voltaire became a fierce advocate for civil liberties and justice. He often used his influence to champion the causes of the oppressed. His intervention in the case of Jean Calas, a Protestant accused of murdering his son to prevent his conversion to Catholicism, is a notable example. Voltaire’s efforts led to the posthumous exoneration of Calas and highlighted the need for judicial reform in France.

And in later life?

In 1758, Voltaire purchased an estate in Ferney, near the French-Swiss border. He spent most of his remaining years there, becoming a respected benefactor and even establishing a watchmaking industry that provided employment for the region. He continued to write prolifically, producing works on history, philosophy, and politics.

In 1778, Voltaire returned to Paris, where he was celebrated as a cultural hero. However, his health was declining, and he died in May of that year at the age of 83. Ironically, given his criticism of the Church, his deathbed was surrounded by rumours of a deathbed conversion to Catholicism, which remain unsubstantiated.

Wasn’t there some kind of controversy even with the watchmaking business he became involved with?

Indeed, Voltaire’s involvement in the watchmaking industry at Ferney did stir some controversy, showcasing the complexity of his character and the times he lived in. This episode is a fascinating blend of entrepreneurship, economic strategy, and a hint of cunning.

  1. Economic Motivation: Voltaire’s move into watchmaking wasn’t just philanthropic; it was also a savvy business decision. At that time, the watchmaking industry was a lucrative business, especially in neighboring Geneva. However, strict regulations and guild controls in Geneva stifled the industry’s growth.
  2. Taking Advantage of Loopholes: Voltaire exploited a loophole. By setting up his watchmaking enterprise in Ferney, which was outside Geneva’s jurisdiction but close enough to attract skilled workers, he could bypass these restrictive guild laws. This allowed him to employ Protestant watchmakers who had fled from religious persecution in Geneva.
  3. Controversy and Criticism: This strategic move didn’t sit well with everyone. Critics accused Voltaire of undermining Geneva’s economy and exploiting workers for profit. There were also allegations that he engaged in monopolistic practices and was overly ruthless in his business dealings.
  4. Impact on Ferney: Despite the controversies, Voltaire’s enterprise transformed Ferney. The village grew prosperous, with the watchmaking industry providing employment and stimulating other economic activities. Voltaire himself often boasted about the success of his venture and its positive impact on the region.
  5. Voltaire’s Dual Role: The Ferney episode reflects Voltaire’s dual role as both a progressive thinker and a shrewd businessman. While he championed civil liberties and justice, he also engaged in practices that some might view as exploitative or opportunistic.

This chapter in Voltaire’s life serves as a reminder that historical figures often embody contradictions, and their legacies can be viewed from multiple perspectives. It also illustrates how economic and social initiatives, even when well-intentioned, can have complex and sometimes contentious impacts. How do you view the balance between Voltaire’s philosophical ideals and his business practices in this context?

Wow… he was certainly a complex character. I’ve just been to look at the Rolex Encylcopedia. My understanding is he followed his convictions in order to establish an alternative industrial hub to Geneva where conditions were poor and oppressive. I believe the watch making industry was probably equivalent to our most valuable hi-tech firms today. A level of ruthlessness was possibly necessary to protect the local economy he helped. It might be worth exploring John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy and Henry Sidgwick’s Utilitarianism to seek guidance on the ethical issues here.

Your perspective brings a fascinating angle to the discussion of Voltaire’s ventures in the watchmaking industry and the ethical considerations involved. Indeed, examining this through the lens of John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy and Henry Sidgwick’s Utilitarianism can provide deeper insight.

  1. John Stuart Mill and Economic Ethics: Mill, in his “Principles of Political Economy,” argues for a balance between individual liberty and the welfare of the community. He believes in the importance of free markets but also emphasizes the role of societal well-being. Applying this to Voltaire’s case, one could argue that while he exercised his entrepreneurial freedom and contributed to the economic development of Ferney, there are questions about how this balanced with the overall welfare of the broader community, including the impact on Geneva’s economy.
  2. Utilitarianism and Voltaire’s Actions: Sidgwick’s Utilitarianism, which focuses on the greatest happiness for the greatest number, offers another angle. Voltaire’s establishment of a thriving watchmaking industry in Ferney arguably increased overall happiness and economic welfare in that region. However, utilitarian ethics would also require us to consider the broader impacts, including any negative effects on Geneva’s economy and the alleged exploitation of workers.
  3. Ruthlessness and Economic Necessity: Your point about the necessity of a certain level of ruthlessness in establishing and protecting a local economy is intriguing. Both Mill and Sidgwick would likely acknowledge that ethical decisions in the realm of economics and industry can be complex. The challenge lies in balancing aggressive business strategies with ethical considerations for all stakeholders involved.
  4. Reflection on Modern Analogues: Comparing Voltaire’s watchmaking enterprise to modern hi-tech firms is apt. Today’s tech giants often face similar ethical dilemmas, balancing innovation and economic growth with social responsibility. The questions of worker welfare, impact on local economies, and broader societal implications are as relevant now as they were in Voltaire’s time.

Reflecting philosophically, how do you think Voltaire’s actions and the ethical frameworks of Mill and Sidgwick can inform our understanding of modern economic practices? Do you see parallels in how today’s businesses navigate these complex ethical landscapes?

We should always endeavour to learn from history. But looking at history as outsiders, using sources that are often biased and appraising those sources on a subjective basis, has limitations. Nonetheless, the questions surrounding parallels between Voltaire’s business strategies and how modern TNCs (Trans-national Corporations) operate are fascinating and worth exploring in a future article. I find it especially interesting to explore the personalities behind some of the decisions that affect people in positive or negative ways. What are the motivations. This is naturally tricky – especially as the true human nature of individuals is, more often than not, unknown! For instance, how do people who knowingly make harmful decisions justify the results? I have theories. Maybe we should cover this sometime, taking into consideration Mill’s, Sidgwick’s and also Jeremy Bentham’s ideologies into mind. Can you recommend contemporary philosophers we could also consider?

You’ve touched upon a crucial aspect of understanding history and its relevance to contemporary issues: the complexity of interpreting motivations and actions through the often limited and biased lens of historical sources. The examination of decision-making in historical figures like Voltaire and its parallels with modern TNCs indeed opens up a rich area for exploration. The ethical and moral dimensions behind these decisions, viewed through the frameworks of thinkers like Mill, Sidgwick, and Bentham, add depth to this analysis.

When considering contemporary philosophers who could enrich this discussion, several names come to mind:

  1. Martha Nussbaum: A prominent figure in modern philosophical discourse, Nussbaum’s work on human emotions, social justice, and ethics is highly influential. Her capabilities approach, co-developed with Amartya Sen, offers a framework for evaluating human well-being that could provide insights into the ethical considerations of corporate decisions.
  2. Michael Sandel: Known for his work on political philosophy and ethics, Sandel’s explorations of justice, democracy, and markets could offer a nuanced perspective on the ethical implications of TNCs’ actions. His critiques of market reasoning in public life are particularly relevant.
  3. Thomas Pogge: Focusing on global justice, Pogge’s work is crucial in understanding the responsibilities of TNCs in the global context. His discussions on how global institutions and policies affect poverty and human rights could provide a critical viewpoint on the role of transnational corporations.
  4. Amartya Sen: Although not exclusively a philosopher, Sen’s work in welfare economics and his capabilities approach, which assesses human well-being beyond economic wealth, can provide a valuable perspective on the impact of corporate strategies on society.
  5. Peter Singer: A leading figure in contemporary utilitarianism, Singer’s focus on ethical living, altruism, and his critique of global inequality can shed light on the moral responsibilities of TNCs and their decision-makers.
  6. Kwame Anthony Appiah: His work on cosmopolitanism and ethics in a globalized world is highly relevant. Appiah’s philosophical exploration of how we construct identity and moral obligations in an interconnected world can provide insights into the responsibilities of TNCs towards diverse global communities.

Including these contemporary thinkers in your exploration of the ethics of TNCs would add a modern dimension to the philosophical frameworks of Mill, Sidgwick, and Bentham. Their varied perspectives on justice, global ethics, and human well-being can offer a comprehensive view of the motivations and justifications behind the decisions of influential figures and corporations in our time.

Thanks Sophi. We’ll go down that rabbit hole sometime. On a final note for now, after a fascinating digression, how did it all end for Voltaire?

Voltaire’s legacy is vast. He is remembered not only for his literary genius but also for his advocacy of freedom of speech, separation of church and state, and civil rights. His life and works remain a testament to the power of the pen in challenging societal norms and promoting progressive thought. In the spirit of philosophical reflection, consider how Voltaire’s advocacy for civil liberties and critical examination of societal norms might be relevant in today’s world.


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